Middle East Roundtable
Edition 36 Volume 6 - September 11, 2008
Seven years to 9/11 and the "war on terror"
• Wholesale change is needed - an interview with Ghazi Hamad
Only by understanding and communicating with different groups, including Hamas and Hizballah, can a new atmosphere arise.
• The battle for Pakistan's soul - Irfan Husain
Pakistan has not yet worked out a political consensus about who the real enemy is.
• A mixed bag - Laurie Mylroie
Confronting the resurgence of the Taliban has become the primary challenge.
• A battleground for the foreseeable future - Chris Toensing
The Washington mandarins, of both parties, care little for international cooperation.
Wholesale change is needed
an interview with Ghazi Hamad
BI: It's seven years since 9/11. What does that mean today?
Hamad: 9/11 was a major curve in history. It was an event that changed the map of the geo-political landscape, especially in the Middle East. One resulting change was in the foreign policy of the US, the "war on terror", which tried to divide countries into axes of good or evil.
The US has not been successful in this primarily because the policy is not approved and has no credibility in the Middle East, even with Arab regimes, even if some countries have tried to protect themselves by cooperating with the US and targeting radical groups to reap some benefit from this US posture.
The "war on terror" has increased hatred against the US, radicalized people and made them more extremist. The reason is that the US has wielded its power in only one way: by using violence and brute force in its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. This affected the outcome in those countries and the reaction of all Islamic movements in the Middle East who have come to see the US as using its wars here simply as a cover to increase its power in the region and in South Asia.
The US has not succeeded in changing the world, ending Islamic movements or decreasing radicalism. What has happened is the reverse: there is more hatred, more division, more radical groups and greater criticism of the US role in the world.
BI: Do you think the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the US weaker?
Hamad: Yes. The US failed to establish a democratic regime in Iraq. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed there: there are daily bombings; there are assassinations; there are Sunni-Shi'ite-Kurdish sectarian conflicts. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but people now say the situation under him was better. It's the same in Afghanistan where the situation is unstable and becoming more unstable. The use of violence and force will not help create democratic regimes and do not provide a good model for the future.
BI: Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan been direct causes of more radicalism?
Hamad: I think there is a clear increase in radical groups. There are now many more people ready to fight the US. There are many who believe that in Iraq, the Americans only came to be the eyes of Israel and to insert itself inside the Muslim world. This has created a very dangerous mood in the Middle East and the Muslim world generally, and there are many who are very angry and upset with US policy. We can see this with the fighters arriving in Iraq from Algeria, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to fight the US, which they see as the head of evil.
BI: This radicalization also pits Muslim groups against each other, Sunni versus Shi'ite, Arab governments versus Islamic movements. Isn't there a danger of a full-blown conflict among Arab and Muslim groups and countries, and how can this be avoided?
Hamad: I don't support radical groups. They are too often a danger to Islamic society. Islam is a moderate religion and some of these people, under the umbrella of Islam, have been targeting innocent people. This is a misrepresentation of Islam. Even America's "war on terror" does not give these people the right to target Jordanian hotels or tourists in Egypt. These radicals need education. They have been brainwashed.
But the US contributed to this increase in the degree of extremism in the Middle East. It is now the job of Arab governments to find a strategy to deal with such radicals. This cannot be done through violence. It should be done through discussion and dialogue, in an effort to convince radicals that they are on the wrong track.
In general, though, I believe moderate Muslim organizations in the region and Muslim world still dominate the situation while radical groups remain fringe organizations with nowhere near the same kind of popular backing.
BI: The US will soon have a new administration. What could such an administration do to cool the situation?
Hamad: First, I have to say I think the era of George W Bush will be remembered as one of the worst times for America ever. He has caused trouble for the US all over the world, from Iraq to Afghanistan, Korea to Sudan. He has caused more wars and more hatred than any other president. He believed that brute force and military might could suppress people. But he has failed in this and he failed to build democracy at the point of a gun.
I hope that any successor will oversee a comprehensive change in policy, though I am not optimistic judging from the statements we've heard so far from the candidates. Barack Obama shows some willingness to entertain change with his statements on Iraq.
If the candidates really want to serve the US as well as democracy in the world and bring security and stability they have to understand that only by understanding and communicating with different groups, including Islamic movements like Hamas and Hizballah, can they create a new atmosphere. If they insist on keeping groups like Hamas and Hizballah on America's list of "terrorist groups" there will be little change. These groups have deep roots and it will not be easy to eradicate them.- Published 11/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ghazi Hamad is a Hamas official from the Gaza Strip.
The battle for Pakistan's soul
Immediately after 9/11, when President Pervez Musharraf was forced into a famous U-turn over his support for the Taliban, many in Pakistan heaved a sigh of relief. To liberal, secular Pakistanis who had watched the creeping Talibanization of the tribal areas with dismay, the military ruler's about face raised the hope that his government would now halt the growth of fundamentalism. Alas, this proved to be a false dawn.
Musharraf, despite the lip service he paid to Washington's "war on terror", drew a fine line between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The former group, with its foreign leadership and global agenda, was hunted with reasonable effectiveness. Many of its operatives were killed or captured and bundled off to Guantanamo. But official policy toward the Taliban has remained deliberately ambiguous for the last eight years. Just as the Taliban were nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence at the inception of the group in 1996, they have been secretly armed, shielded and guided by elements in Pakistan's elite intelligence agency ever since.
When western allies first entered Afghanistan in December 2001, the Taliban were broken and scattered. Routed by unrelenting aerial bombardment and the fighters of the Northern Alliance, they sought shelter in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Here, they were beyond the reach of western forces and the Pakistani army. Traditionally, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas enjoy a great degree of autonomy and are outside the jurisdiction of the law. Instead, they are governed by tribal law administered by elders and village councils known as "jirgas".
Taking advantage of this power vacuum, the Taliban found sanctuary and established training camps. Financing came largely from the rapidly growing opium and heroin production in the bordering Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kunar. With a weak government in Kabul, drug production has soared, and with it the coffers of the Taliban have swelled. Young fighters with no prospects of employment in these dirt-poor areas are recruited for as little as five dollars a day, with a bonus if they kill a coalition soldier.
Where there were a number of extremist groups on the Pakistani side of the border, today they have consolidated their efforts under the banner of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and are led by Baituallah Mehsud, the man widely believed to have masterminded the murder of Benazir Bhutto last December. In 2007, the TTP and its allies within Pakistan launched some 50 suicide attacks in which nearly 1,000 Pakistanis were killed. The recent attack on the prime minister's car along a heavily guarded route near Islamabad indicates how freely they have begun operating.
Musharraf himself, despite his tight security, has been targeted at least three times. What is even more worrying is the number of Taliban sympathizers within the armed forces and intelligence services. According to reliable reports, many retired army and ISI officers are helping extremist groups.
Ethnicity is a factor often overlooked by westerners when assessing the conflict. Virtually all the Taliban are Pashtuns who make up the population of much of the border areas. In fact, they constitute Afghanistan's largest single ethnic group, and in Pakistan they populate virtually all of FATA as well as the North-Western Frontier Province. Since they are strongly represented in Pakistan's armed forces, police and the bureaucracy, it is difficult to portray them as the enemy. Traditionally, tribesmen come and go over the ill-defined border without let or hindrance, and attempts to limit this free access are fiercely resisted.
Military action in the tribal areas triggers protests orchestrated by conservative groups across Pakistan. The recent raid by US Special Forces into Pakistan resulted in the deaths of a number of women and children and has been widely criticized, with the government coming under pressure to cut off military links with Washington.
Another factor that has thwarted a more effective response to the Taliban threat is Pakistan's preoccupation with India. Generations of army officers have been taught that Pakistan's giant neighbor is the real enemy, and this doctrine is reflected in the disposition and concentration of the country's half-million strong army. Troops have been trained to fight a conventional war on the plains of Punjab and Sindh. After 9/11, around 80,000 troops were deployed along the Afghan border, but even this number is insufficient to seal it. Currently, a military alliance between Afghanistan and India is Pakistani military planners' worst nightmare. To thwart such a possibility, the Pakistani army wants to retain the Taliban as proxies and is therefore reluctant to crush them.
Finally, Pakistan has not yet worked out a political consensus about who the real enemy is. Until the day he left office in early August, Musharraf was regularly castigated in the media as Bush's poodle doing America's dirty work by killing his own people. Pakistani TV networks are forever churning out talk shows in which so-called experts criticize the government for fighting fellow-Muslims. They conveniently overlook the fact that these same Muslims are responsible for killing hundreds of innocent Pakistanis and Afghans.
In post-Musharraf Pakistan, the newly-elected government is struggling to find its feet. The coalition of the two largest parties has already split up. Nawaz Sharif, leader of his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, has made clear his intention to talk to the Taliban rather than fight them. But Asif Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto and now president of Pakistan, has declared his intention to take the fight to the terrorists who threaten to seize control. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Zardari called this the "battle for Pakistan's soul". Clearly, this is a battle Pakistan cannot afford to lose.- Published 11/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Irfan Husain writes two columns a week for Dawn, Pakistan's widest circulating and most influential daily. After a career in the civil service spanning 30 years, he was president of a university in Pakistan for five years.
A mixed bag
Seven years on, America's war on terror is a mixed bag. The situation reflects neither the substantial fear of further assaults that existed immediately after 9/11 nor the misplaced optimism that suggested the United States could radically transform the broader Middle East, as Ronald Reagan had brought about the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Patterned on the western diplomacy that ended communism, President George W. Bush's Middle East democracy initiative began in late 2003 when the White House mistakenly believed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were largely won. The impetus for that effort came chiefly from the White House, as former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith explains in "War and Decision". The president was drawn to the idea, and Condoleezza Rice saw the Arabs as an oppressed people whose circumstances resembled those of blacks in the segregated south, her biographer Elizabeth Bumiller relates.
Yet the Middle East is neither the Soviet bloc nor the American south, and the US call for democratic change really only resonated in one Arab country--Lebanon, the most westernized. And even this one success was significantly set back when Washington then failed to support the March 14 coalition against Syrian and Iranian subversion. After the democracy initiative helped produce a Hamas victory in 2006, it was set aside in large part.
Yet American achievements have not been insignificant. There have been no further 9/11-style attacks in the United States. In the years following those assaults, many countries that had not previously experienced significant Muslim violence or had had no such violence for many years suddenly faced major attacks: Britain, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Tunisia and Turkey. From 2002 to 2005, an average of four such attacks occurred annually, killing an average of 214 people each year. But since April 2006, there have been no significant Islamic terrorist attacks in any of them and CIA Director Michael Hayden recently gave an upbeat assessment of US progress against al-Qaeda.
Violence continues, certainly, but it is more narrowly focused geographically. It is up dramatically in Algeria, but that may be related to a decision taken by the Algerian government in 2006 to free 2,500 Muslim extremists from prison rather than to any intrinsic strength of the global jihad. Significant violence also continues in India, but that is probably a function of the support Pakistani intelligence provides Islamic extremists fighting its traditional foe.
Progress also exists elsewhere. Iraq has turned around since the "surge" started in early 2007 and Gen. David Petraeus began to implement a new counter-terrorism strategy focused on protecting the Iraqi population and working with it against the relatively small percentage of "irreconcilables". Although the current situation remains fragile, as Petraeus cautions, America may well win this war, provided it has the stamina.
Failing to maintain public support for the war was a significant shortcoming of the Bush administration. As Feith explains, when weapons of mass destruction could not be found in Iraq by the fall of 2003 the White House ceased to defend its decision to overthrow Saddam. Since the United States was already in Iraq, it reasoned, that was unnecessary. It was better to look forward and focus on the democracy initiative. Of course, when the White House reached that conclusion it did not understand that very significant combat--and the bulk of US casualties--lay in the future.
The major problem now lies elsewhere. Pakistan's security establishment has worked with Islamic extremists for three decades and remains closely tied to them. It provided crucial support for the Taliban in the 1990s, and even after the United States went to war in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks Pakistan continued to support the Taliban. It appeared to cooperate with the United States as it helped capture al-Qaeda leaders, but its actions were in fact more complex. Yet Pakistan also helped capture al-Qaeda leaders.
Following the apparent Taliban defeat in late 2001, many radicals took refuge in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Over time, the "Talibanization" of a significant part of the FATA ensued. Many tribal leaders were murdered by radical young upstarts and the Taliban established a base from which to attack the fledgling Afghan government. Despite the repeated complaints of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the White House, focused on al-Qaeda, was slow to recognize the seriousness of the problem and Pakistan's role in contributing to it.
The radicalization of Pakistan's tribal areas has also spilled over into Pakistan proper. Army offensives into the FATA increased popular anger against Islamabad, contributing to a dramatic increase in violence, including attacks against government facilities and personnel. The rise of the Taliban within the FATA also contributed to the emergence of radicals in neighboring areas, including the North West Frontier Province, where they sometimes threaten the provincial capital, Peshawar.
Thus, confronting the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan has become the primary challenge in the war on terror.- Published 11/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Laurie Mylroie is an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein's War Against America.
A battleground for the foreseeable future
Bob Woodward's four books chronicling the wars of President George W. Bush are sensitive barometers of conventional wisdom in Washington. Whereas the first volume, published in 2002 at the height of the self-righteous nationalism gripping the capital after the September 11, 2001 attacks, hailed Bush's self-confidence in acting to protect the homeland, the 2008 installment depicts the same man as cocksure and incurious. More educational are Woodward's hints about the worldviews that will outlast this unpopular administration, embedded in the organs of the national security state.
Consider the words of retired Gen. Jack Keane, reported by Woodward to have been spoken to Gen. David Petraeus in Baghdad in March: "We're going to be here for 50 years minimum, most of the time hopefully preventing wars, and on occasion having to fight one, dealing with radical Islam, our economic interests in the region and trying to achieve stability.... We're going to do it anyway because we don't have a choice."
"Here", in Keane's formulation, was not Iraq, but the sprawling theater of operations for US Central Command, or CENTCOM, of which Petraeus will assume control when his tour in Iraq is over. Keane's message to Petraeus was clear: CENTCOM, whose borders happen to coincide roughly with those of the Islamic world, is where the action is, now and as far as the eye can see.
While Keane is known as the architect of Bush's "surge" in Iraq, and is a favorite of neo-conservatives and other hawks, his ideas about US grand strategy are common across the ideological spectrum that matters in Washington. Hardly anyone of political weight has learned from the Iraq debacle, the disaster in Somalia or the September 11 attacks for that matter, that the United States is too heavily deployed or too bent on having its way in CENTCOM's domain. John McCain and Barack Obama both speak of sending more troops to Afghanistan, though Obama would remove them from Iraq first. No one in a position to work in the next White House has advocated that the US give up its role, inherited from Britain, as praetorian guard of Persian Gulf oil or its more expansive mission to stamp out fires throughout what Carter-era National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called the "arc of crisis". The arguments are about how this hegemonic stance can be maintained to maximum advantage and at minimum cost.
This is not to suggest, in crude fashion, that the existence of CENTCOM caused the September 11 attacks and will inevitably provoke a reprise. It is rather to say that the American strategic and political classes are acutely aware, as never before 2001, of the importance of a "forward-leaning posture" in the Middle East to the overall health of US superpower status. The threats they perceive to the free flow of the region's oil, two thirds of the world's proven reserves (as cannot be repeated often enough), come not just from radical Islam and failed states, but also from the grasping, and growing, giants Russia and China. The prospects of relative US decline are to be confronted, not managed. The Washington mandarins, of both parties, care little for international cooperation. They believe in power and they trust no one but themselves to wield it.
Of course, both parties prattle, as they do every electoral season, about weaning America off "Middle Eastern oil". But even assuming a series of presidents with the political will and capital to make the necessary policy changes, the task will outlive all of their terms. Denmark, which has so many wind turbines it exports 90 percent of the electricity, still consumes vastly more oil than renewable energy, in large part because of the automobile. The US, with its wide open spaces and exurban subdivisions, will continue to need more and more oil to sustain living standards at home, even as domestic production slips and competition for control of foreign fields toughens. More to the point, the strategic stakes in the Persian Gulf will only heighten. Whosoever polices the Gulf safeguards the single most important commodity for the world economy.
The peoples of the lands under CENTCOM's umbrella can hope for a smarter, more inquisitive, less bellicose American president than the boy-king, whose bungling Woodward reveals. Such a chief executive might have the skill to forestall the wars that Keane foresees. But, barring the advent of a foreign policy establishment in Washington with genuine vision and appropriate humility, the fundamentals of political economy dictate that, in some shape or form, the greater Middle East will remain a battleground for several Septembers to come.- Published 11/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, a publication of the Middle East Research and Information Project (www.merip.org).
Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.